Vegetable Container Gardening for Beginners
Container gardening is a fantastic way to grow vegetables, especially when you lack yard space! If you have a small gardening area or only have access to a patio, balcony, driveway, or rooftop, see our guide on guide on vegetable container gardening for beginners!
What is Container Gardening?
Container gardening is growing in pots; this allows those of us who don’t have room for raised beds or a huge garden plot to grow our own food, too.
Benefits of Container Gardening
The great thing about growing in containers is being able to pick up pots and move them where you know they’ll thrive. Even if it’s only one or two pots on the side of your driveway or in the corner of your balcony, gardening in containers allows you to maximize all of your available space.
Container gardening also gives you much more control over your growing. You can have ideal growing medium with the right amount of nutrients. You’ll certainly have less weeds or even no weeding and can streamline your gardening tasks. Harvesting is much cleaner and easier, too.
A Beginner’s Guide to Container Gardening
Just as with a standard garden bed, consider things such as sunlight exposure, water accessibility, and protection from wind when deciding where to put your containers.
To maximize your veggie harvest, you’ll want to place your pots in an area that gets full sun (i.e., 6 to 8 hours of sunlight per day). Lettuce, spinach, and other greens can grow well in less sunlight (3 to 5 hours per day), but for fruiting plants like tomatoes, peppers, squash, or eggplant, full sun should be the goal. Southern and western exposures will provide the most sunlight and warmth, while northern and eastern exposures will be shadier and cooler.
It’s also a good idea to put your pots somewhere that you can reach with a watering hose. Keep in mind that container gardens tend to need more water than standard in-ground gardens, and there’s nothing worse than having to lug a gardening can across your yard a dozen times every morning—and then having to do it again in the evening! Having an easily accessible source of water nearby will save you a lot of time and effort.
Protecting containers from direct wind keeps them from drying out as much and prevents accidental tipping over. Depending on the size of your containers and the plants you’re growing, they may get top-heavy as the season goes on, which makes them more vulnerable to tipping over in strong winds. Place containers in sheltered locations or plan to secure them (e.g., with cinderblocks, stones, or ropes).
Finally, think about the microclimates that exist on your property. Microclimates are small pockets of space in which the climate of the immediate area doesn’t match the greater climate of your location. For example, an asphalt driveway will hold onto warmth longer than a patch of grass will, so any pots placed on the driveway will be exposed to that extra warmth. On one hand, this could mean that the pots dry out more quickly, but on the other hand, the plants may grow better thanks to the warmer soil.
What Size Pot for Container Gardening
The most fundamental part of container gardening is—surprise—picking the right container! In general, the more space you can offer your plants’ roots, the better they will grow. Most vegetables need at least 12 inches of soil to grow well, but larger vegetables will require more space. A 5-gallon container is a good size for growing something like a tomato or squash plant, while a smaller container would be perfectly fine for shallow-rooted plants such as lettuce or other greens.
Bear in mind that larger containers will be heavier and harder to move, and may be too heavy for somewhere like a balcony. Small containers, on the other hand, are more mobile and versatile, but also tend to dry out faster, requiring more attention on hot days.
How Large Should Drainage Holes Be?
A container should have a drainage hole or some other way to allow water to pass through it. Water-logged soil promotes bacterial and fungal growth, which will stunt plants’ productivity or kill them outright. Your climate factors into this as well; gardeners in drier areas may want to choose containers that retain more moisture, while those in more humid environments way want containers that allow for more air flow.
If you have a container which is 4 to 6 inches in diameter, then you just need 3 to 6 drainage holes where each is 1/4th inch in size. Larger containers need 6 to 8 drainage holes and the size would be 1/4th. Holes larger than 1/4 inch in diameter will allow too much soil to escape.
What Type of Pot?
From plastic pots and cinderblocks to whiskey barrels and wheelbarrows, almost anything that holds soil can be gardened in. The final important factor to consider is what the container is made out of. These days, containers come in all sorts of types, each with its upsides and downsides. Here are a few of the most popular container materials:
Plastic: Plastic pots come in all sorts of shapes, colors, and sizes, which makes them one of the most popular choices for container gardening. Plastic pots also tend to be the cheapest option. They are relatively lightweight, hold in moisture well, and are easy to clean and reuse for many gardening seasons down the line. If you’re growing edibles, be sure to choose pots made out of food-grade plastic so that chemicals won’t leach into the soil.
Ceramic (terra-cotta): Ceramic pots are another popular choice. They tend to be more decorative than plastic pots, but are also quite a bit heavier—especially when filled with soil. Ceramic pots come in glazed or unglazed styles; the main difference being that glazed pots hold in more moisture than unglazed pots. The great thing about ceramic pots is that the clay is porous, which allows some level of air and water to flow through it. This ensures that soil doesn’t get overly wet, but also means that soil in (unglazed) clay pots will dry out more quickly than in plastic pots. Additionally, ceramic pots are susceptible to cracking in cold weather, so they should be emptied and stored in a sheltered area through the winter.
Fabric: Fabric pots have become more popular in recent years thanks to their lightweight nature and the breathability they offer. They often come with handles, too, which makes moving them around very easy. Plus, they can be washed and reused fairly easily. The fabric allows air and water to easily flow through it, which is beneficial to plants’ roots, as they are encouraged to become more fibrous and, therefore, more efficient at taking in water and nutrients. One downside to fabric pots is that they dry out rather quickly, so consistent watering will be required.
Again, almost anything can be used as a container, so get creative! Hanging baskets make good use of extra space, and herbs, cherry tomatoes, and strawberries grown at eye level can be easily tended and harvested. Use whiskey barrels (a wooden half-barrel can yield an amazing amount of food), buckets, baskets, boxes, bath- and other tubs, window boxes, and troughs—anything that holds soil. Just be sure that it has drainage holes in the bottom and is a size that you can manage.
The Best Soil for Container Gardening
In order to grow healthy plants, you need healthy soil. Plants in containers need the best possible nutrients, aeration, and drainage in order to encourage healthy root growth and to produce a good harvest.
Do not use soil from the garden! Most garden soils are too heavy, can become easily waterlogged and compacted, and harbor disease and insects. Instead, use a “soilless” potting mix that’s specifically formulated for use in containers. It will be quick-draining and lightweight, and shouldn’t contain any diseases or pests.